Thriller In Wasilla: Town Abuzz Over Election

WASILLA, Alaska – The town of Wasilla, which bristled under the glare of intense media scrutiny in the weeks after John McCain tapped Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, seems to be buzzing in anticipation of Election Day.

The National Rifle Association is sponsoring a results watching party here in Palin’s hometown featuring refreshments, booze, gun-safety classes and a rock band called Sarah and the Pit Bulls. And the front page of the local paper, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, on Sunday featured a five-column package on Palin resulting from its splurging to send a reporter on the campaign trail with her last week.

The reporter, who scored a coveted seat on the Straight Talk Express bus for a swing through central Pennsylvania, virtually kvelled that “on the bus, Palin appears to be the same woman Alaskans have known for years” and marveled at the poise her 7-year-old daughter Piper showed in front of large crowds.

“Perhaps it’s an indication she’ll become like her mom sometime down the road,” the story speculated.

Still, when Palin returns here early election morning, she will be coming back to a different Alaska than the one she left in late August.

The in-state approval ratings of the Republican vice presidential nominee are down from the astronomical highs she enjoyed during her nearly two-year honeymoon as Alaska’s first female governor, she was dinged for an ethics violation (though a report released by her administration Monday afternoon reached a contradictory conclusion), and her relationships with some of the state’s leading political Republicans – already hardly the stuff of buddy movies – have been strained further.

In the event John McCain loses to Barack Obama, Palin also will discover that some Alaskans now question whether she is the down-home pragmatist that Alaskans are familiar with or the ambitious partisan who delighted Republican audiences on the campaign trail.

But that unease is still mostly trumped by pride here in her small hometown, located about one hour north of Anchorage, where she will cast her vote Tuesday morning before swooping off to Arizona to watch the returns that will determine whether her next move is to Washington, D.C., or back to Alaska.

An informal survey of Wasillans outside the city’s post office Monday and at a holiday craft exposition Sunday found most rooting for Palin and disgusted with what they contend has been unfair media treatment of her, her family and her record in her two terms as mayor of Wasilla from 1996 to 2002. Still, some expressed concern that Palin – who has hinted she’d consider running for president herself in 2012 if the McCain-Palin ticket loses– might be looking past her remaining two years as governor.

“I think she’ll be in the White House,” Nathan Smith, a 34-year old oil field services worker, said Monday afternoon outside Wasilla’s post office.

If Obama wins, though, Smith, a Palin backer, said he’d welcome her back to finish out her two years as governor. But he conceded, “She’s probably hurt herself with Alaskans because when she was up here, she played by her own rules, then when John McCain picked her, all of a sudden she’s this ultra-conservative.”

Palin is still the same person she was during her time as mayor, asserted Errol Stafford, a 69-year old retired roofing contractor who voted for Palin as mayor and governor.

“She did a damn good job up here,” recalled Stafford, his one-year old Maltese/Yorkie blend puppy Tiffany squirming on his lap in the front seat of his car, idling in the post office lot.

Stafford said he’s looking forward to the end of the election, regardless of the result, in part because he hopes it’ll mean less media scrutiny of Palin.

“NBC and all the networks but Fox have given Barack Obama waybetter coverage than Sarah Palin and John McCain,” he contended.

Eva Roddick, a retiree from Wasilla who described herself as “more than 60” and said she is pulling for Palin, agreed.

“I am literally sick of the bashing,” she said after dropping off mail.

Some, however, are uncomfortable with Palin’s embrace of the national spotlight.

Bill Keller, a 70-year old funeral home owner from just outside Wasilla waiting for his wife outside the holiday expo (held in a Wasilla hockey arena complex Palin built as mayor), said he was a big fan of Palin as mayor and governor and will vote for the GOP ticket.

But, he added, “there were a lot of people who were disappointed in the way that she so readily accepted the vice presidential nomination when John McCain offered it. She hadn’t been governor of Alaska for that long and some people think she kind of abandoned Alaska and didn’t do the job she was elected to do.”

If Palin comes back to the governor’s office, Keller said, he’ll be watching her moves with an eye towards whether she’s acting to pad her resume or improve Alaskans’ lives.

“It seems to me, she’s doing a little bit of this for her own betterment,” he said.

Though Palin has said she regularly consults with her aides in Alaska state government, talk radio has buzzed with complaints about her absence and accusations that she’s turned over the reins of government to the McCain campaign, which has fielded media requests made to the governor’s office.

After a Sunday rally in Wasilla for the state’s embattled senior Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, who was convicted last week on seven counts of hiding gifts, the state’s junior Republican Senator, Lisa Murkowski, predicted that if Obama wins, Palin will have some work to do upon her return to Alaska to restore her working relationships.

“It’s going to depend on how she comes back,” Murkowski said. “I would hope that she is going to give her all to being a great governor. And if she is a great governor, that enhances her ability to do whatever it is that she may want to pursue, whether it is governor for another term, whether it’s the presidency in 2012 or whether it’s the possibility of a federal seat,” said Murkowski, who acknowledged she’s heard rumblings that Palin might challenge her in a Republican primary in 2010, when Murkowski’s seat comes up.

Murkowski is a big supporter of Stevens, while Palin has called for him to resign.

Her resignation call not only won’t hurt Stevens’ reelection chances Tuesday, but could backfire and hurt Palin, asserted Randy Ruedrich, chairman of the state Republican party and a Palin nemesis.

“In the environment that we are in, I think she is seen as an outside influence,” Ruedrich told Politico Thursday night outside a concert in an Anchorage sports bar welcoming Stevens home. Ruedrich, it must be pointed out, resigned under pressure from a position on the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission after Palin filed an ethics complaint alleging he had a conflict of interest.

Stevens’ campaign said it had its best day of online fundraising after Palin called for his resignation.
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